An improbable alliance

Via New Donkey, check out Brad Carson's article in The New Republic if you're able. Carson, who lost a Senate seat to spectacular nutcase Tom Coburn last Tuesday, argues:
"But it was not until that September Sunday in Sallisaw, one of the most Democratic towns in Oklahoma, that I first understood that the seemingly innocuous phrase "vote righteously" was the slogan not of a few politicized churches, but the cri de coeur of millions--millions who fervently believe that their most deeply held values are under assault and who further see this assault as at least tolerated by the Democratic Party, if not actually led by it."
Carson says that abortion and gay marriage are only the most organized prongs in the grand culture war that so many Americans feel they are a part of. The real phenomenon, what Thomas Frank calls the 'backlash' as discussed below, is a conviction shared by millions that cannot be denied or attributed to some insidious 'false consciousness'.

Many have argued just the opposite. That Frank doesn't get the truth of the Kulturkampf, that he argues it is a grand diversion which tricks people of dwindling incomes into voting for the Republican economic policies that further immiserate them. I agree that Frank harms his case a bit when he overplays this contradiction to highlight the perversity of the corporate laissez faire/down home culture warrior alliance. But focusing on that misstep ignores the truth of his essential point: that the culture war is about fundamental economic and cultural shifts, namely, the triumph of corporate capitalism. He argues that Republicans have been effective in diverting this phenomenon in political terms, creating a 'liberal elite' bogeyman and skillfully chaining it to the ankle of the Democratic party. But the problem is bigger than a tactical miscalculation on the part of Democrats, it is our collective inability to address the consequences of today's economic system. Although he questions the political implications, Frank thinks the sentiment is real, and justified.

The funny thing is, looking at the backlash in this light, i.e., getting fed up with the vulgarity, crassness and stupidity perpetrated by corporate-profit driven entertainment, I actually find a lot to relate to. How often do you yearn for the time when turning on your TV didn't make you feel like the human race was doomed? I mean, isn't this essentially the same complaint you hear from all those liberal elitists curled up in their PBS, NPR and foreign film media bubbles?

Liberals' sensitivity to free speech rights and censorship, while admirable, often puts us in the funny position of defending the vacuous low brow culture we spend the rest of our day decrying and hiding from. What's more, stokers of the culture war have handily reinforced that outcry by waging their fiercest battles over legitimate art and public funding for it. And when conservatives do set their sights on popular entertainment, we mutter something about how those people must be prudes, half heartedly invoke the first amendment on behalf of the multinational corporation, and accuse those politicians of pandering to the culture fascists. But I'll be damned if you'll find any of the same libs with that abhorrent rap CD in their stereos or in front of their TVs when that soul-deadening reality TV show premieres. They'll be unwittingly communing with their heartland friends, bemoaning to what depths society has sunk.

Who knows how far this will really get us. A good portion of the country thinks liberals are not just abetters of this cultural decay but the actual perpetrators, so it is, needless to say, an uphill climb. But at the least, let's stop this charade of silencing ourselves about cultural trends we find despicable. Let's continue to defend artistic freedom as vigorously as ever, but let's stop giving quarter to the profit-driven rot we find distasteful. Let's call out by name the corporate hegemony that coarsens society, makes teenagers into idiots, and drowns out art and progressive culture.

Liberals are very good at talking to each other about these things: in the foundations we create, the artistic communities we support, and the liberal educations we cherish. But we've grown lazy in supporting these things politically, preferring to resign ourselves to the decline of cultural values as somehow an inevitable march of stupidity and crassness. We have internalized the conservative rap that opening society and increasing tolerance go hand in hand with vulgarity, moral ambiguity and lowest common denominator culture.

Part of this is the bunker mentality we have about civil rights politics. Conservatives have engineered an either-or mindfuck where they ask "Do you want to save culture or protect women's rights?" And we're so focused on holding the line against any incursions on the gains of the 60s that along the way, we've forgotten that the values of economic justice, tolerance and minority rights can only take root when liberal society is running on all cylinders. And that liberal society is dying. If we don't fight for it, none of these things are possible.

But I digress. Now for a couple of caveats:

1) Understanding that liberals have a lot in common with red-state rejection of corporate culture doesn't change the fact that a lot of these people think gayness=moral decay. While an offensive on this front must involve the argument that gay people and their families share the same values as all Americans, and deserve respect and tolerance etc., a lot of these people are just plain old bigots, their minds will not be changed and it will take a generation or two until they die off.

2) This move won't work if there is the least hint of condescension in it. The reason I think this has a good chance of working is that liberals really do feel this way, but for the reasons listed above, they are reluctant to voice it. This is a battle about OUR culture being preyed upon by corporations appealing to the worst in society. It's about solidarity.

3) On that note, if we think that winning the battle for the cultural soul of America is just about spreading around the art made in the cities, we are deeply misguided. A robust free culture, what the corporations are destroying, isn't about getting some artists together or putting up some shows in the boonies. It is a long term commitment to forging a society where the lowest common denominator can't take root, much less become the norm.

4) Needless to say, education is central to this. Liberals need to start talking about education as more than a way to increase your bottom line (which we don't believe anyhow). We need to talk about healthy schools and open universities as transformative forces in society. As institutions that create citizens who reject cultural decline, who want to be engaged in society, who work to better their communities and their nation.

Long story short: liberals hate the direction culture is heading in as much as conservatives. We have no illusions about why its happening: corporate control over information and entertainment has gone wildly out of control, and corporations make bad culture. Let's stop acquiescing to the conservative line that gay people, or working women, or university professors did it, and recognize that a lot of people are really just talking about the dreck they find on TV every night. Just because we're not going to actually censor things doesn't mean we can't rail against it and talk about how to build a nation that rejects that 'culture'. I for one, would find that very satisfying.

Now what's on PBS tonight?


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